“It was…a few years ago. I was travelling a lot. I had finished my masters. I was, at the time, 29, and thought that if I didn’t travel now, I was never going to. I did the summer mostly in Europe.”
“Because you’re a cliche.”
“Ha, yes. I know. But I’d never been before. And it is different in some very key ways. Anyways, I started west and worked my way east. I acquired the habit of going to Starbucks. It’s weird, I don’t really go to Starbucks much here. I did, but it was mostly because it’s hard to avoid.”
“Market share through ubiquity.”
“Exactly. And it was worse there. It was like its own sovereign nation, with embassies everywhere I went. They serve the same things, with a few exceptions, usually region specific things, and they all seem like they should have a fireplace built into the wall, to warm your feet. It became a sort of home away from home. Really, that’s what it was, a little slice of home. They’re designed with that in mind. Emulating that slice of home. That sort of comforting space that you can always feel safe at. And they have free wifi.
This one time I’m in Barcelona and I’m enjoying my Americano. I’m catching up on emails, planning out my next few days and I see a man walk in. I don’t really pay him much attention. When he’s up at the counter, I have another look at him and he looks like an old college friend of mine. Same short buzz cut, glasses, tall, he’s even wearing the same sweater vest and tie combo. I am staring at this man, and my mind is saying, ‘That’s Adam!’ but that doesn’t make any sense.
I log into Facebook and, it’s him, I’m not just remembering him wrong. And there’s nothing about him leaving town. At this point the guy gets his drink and he’s coming towards me and I’m…scared, I guess. Something isn’t right here. And the man starts speaking to me, in Spanish — Adam doesn’t know Spanish — and then, in broken English, asks if he can share the table. I nod, in a panic.
I can tell I’m staring at the guy, trying to make sense of this. I don’t know how long I’m doing it, but at some point another person enters. A couple, actually. She looks like a high school teacher of mine. He is…or rather, he looks like, my ex, Jeremy. No doubt in my mind: this person looked exactly like him. Even walked like him. You know how you can get to know somebody’s walk? This guy walked like Jeremy. He looks at me and doesn’t react, in any way. It’s not him.
That’s when I look around, I mean, really look around, and notice that everybody in this Starbucks in Barcelona, far far away from home, looked like somebody else I knew. Friends, family, a few old coworkers, the bartender at the local pub, my landlord. People I know, or knew.”
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I left.”
“How…do you explain that?”
“I don’t. I can’t. I haven’t told this story in years because people would offer explanations or sympathy, but they weren’t sure what they were offering sympathy for. It’s hard for me to let go of this event and how it made me feel.
Everything was almost the same, but completely different.”
It’s a joke, a fucking joke.
These guys, make a few thousand with their penny stocks and think they’re doing alright.
Fucking dilettantes, that’s what they fucking are.
That thousand, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even, that’s insignificant. The giant universe of money doesn’t notice the scraps you’ve put on your plate. You have not gotten away with anything. That is a speck of dust suspended in a beam of light. And you will always be that speck, because you don’t realize how much is out there.
Had to take a plane to Mexico, work, you know. Stupid me, I get sucked into chatting with one of these three legged dogs in the boarding area. He calls me a sucker for having to work when I could be going where he is, Punta Cana.
Can you believe it? That’s his bait. Punta Cana.
Would’ve laughed in his face, but instead I tell him, “I’ve been to fucking space.”
It’s true. I have been to fucking space.
He looks up to me and says, “You can do that?” and I tell him all about it. Dropping figures because I know that’s what’ll impress him. It’s just that easy. And the rest of the time he’s waiting to board he’s got this big ugly frown on his face, realizing everything he is missing.
There are few obvious pleasures in listening to old Mountain Goats songs.
The music is, to be charitable, primitive. “It’s the lyrics! Listen to the lyrics!” becomes the mantra and crutch that most fans try to use when prosthelytizing. Nevermind that John Darnielle’s bleating is, perhaps more than his three-chord structures and the tape recorder hiss, the most abrasive of the sonic elements. And while a solid mix tape can do wonders, few of the early albums and tapes are cohesive enough to recommend.
Things have gotten easier: Since 2000, the albums have gotten better, at least musically, and the albums thematically tighter. On the best albums, We Shall All Be Healed and All Hail West Texas you get a scope from these slice-of-life portraits of down-and-out characters who have lost all hope.
Lately I started to revisit his “Going to…” series, a collection of songs spread out across several albums about travel. The places range from exotic (Going to Lebanon) to pedestrian (Going to Buffalo). Images of planes and airports, and themes of loss and distance appear time and time again.
Most of the characters in these songs are in denial. They believe that the lover who is boarding a plane can no longer hurt them, that their friend isn’t at death’s door, that they aren’t in mortal danger, that things will be different in Cleveland. They all labour under the assumption that distance will change who they are and how they feel.
And who hasn’t thought about this? Moving somewhere, anywhere, means we have to change so many fundamental things about how we interact with the world. We change our surroundings, our jobs, our friends. Sometimes the ties and relationships that bind us to a place can suffocate us. Moving to a different state doesn’t just signify a change of scenery, it means cutting those ties.
But Darnielle cuts through this myth. We can only blame so much on our surroundings. Eventually we have to accept that we are part of the problem. Darnielle is obsessed with hopelessness: characters are stuck no matter where they go. They are stuck, and don’t even know it.
In these songs, place is rendered insignificant. Wherever we go, the exterior becomes a metaphor for the interior, for better or worse. Trouble follows us down the interstate, burdens are transatlantic. Travelling is a form of denial.
For all its pessimism, though, some “Going to…” songs can be strangely optimistic. The song Going to Scotland is about two young lovers from Oklahoma who are consumed by their young, physical love. No matter where they go, they will always be in love and happy. Here there is some hope. Maybe most of songs are bleak, but maybe I missed what they were actually trying to say. We are part of the problem, yes, but we can be better then the place we find ourselves in.